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Asia's corporate governance pioneers

Headlines exposing torrid tales of corporate miscreants and tough talk by governments and regulators about imposing new standards have kept the issue of corporate governance bubbling over in recent times. Investors suspect companies are paying no more than lip service. However, a few Asian companies have been quietly setting their own standards - and reaping significant gains. Chris Leahy reports.

AS REGULATORS ACROSS the world's leading financial markets issue, revise and reissue laws, codes and guidelines, reacting to the latest breach to emerge in the corporate governance dam, requirements become ever more Byzantine, compliance costs increase and companies' cooperation seems to become more reluctant by the day. It is hard to escape the conclusion that little is being achieved. Companies may learn to tick a few new boxes, convey the appearance of compliance and make the right noises without actually improving the way they are run.

For a few Asian companies, though, including some small and medium-size ones, the penny dropped years ago.

Mention the words corporate governance to Richard Elman, founder and chief executive officer of Noble Group, and it is hard to tell whether the expression on his face is a smile or a grimace.

"It's got nothing to do with corporate governance," he says gruffly as though the answer is obvious, "it's a culture. It's about how you run your business, what's fair and reasonable. How you treat people."

Noble virtues Elman has treated his shareholders particularly well. Since 1998, Singapore-listed Noble's share price has risen 1,500%. In the seemingly mundane business of global supply chain management for a variety of commodities, Noble is obviously doing something right.

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